SFJFF Given the seemingly endless one-step-forward, two-steps-back nature of peace negotiations in the Middle East, it seems a fair bet that the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (July 24-Aug. 10) will never stop being among the most politically charged among umpteen annual Bay Area film festivals. But considerably older than the state of Israel — and all attendant controversies — is an aspect of Jewish history that reliably provides a counterbalance to the inevitable heavyweight documentaries and dramas. That would be the ubiquity of Jewish talent in popular entertainment, as performers, presenters, and in every other necessary role.
An old saw that never exactly went away but nonetheless has come back with a vengeance in our alleged post-racial era is that perpetual complaint of the envious, paranoid, and prejudiced that "the Jews run Hollywood." While it's true that the movie biz has always has employed a large number of Jewish people, anti-Semites have only themselves to blame for originating this state of affairs. It was the entertainment industry's lack of respectability in its fledgling years that created an opening for an industrious and imaginative minority who were frequently discouraged from sullying more prestigious art forms with their participation. For decades (arguably even now) many stars, studio moguls, and others tried to downplay or entirely hide their ethnic identity; the silent era, in particular, was a hotbed of biographical revisionism among Hollywood players. Nonetheless, Jewish business, tech, design, and acting talents established deep roots in moviemaking well before Hollywood as idea or physical entity existed, precisely because flickers were initially viewed as a lowbrow novelty unfit for the higher working castes. A very sad microcosm of that semi-hidden Jewish industry presence's early heights and depths is offered offered by David Cairns and Paul Duane's multinational documentary Natan, about a hugely important yet lamentably overlooked figure in French cinema. Romanian-born Bernard Natan went from projectionist to cinematographer, producer, film laboratory owner, and more in the medium's early days. An innovator in the use of sound, color, wide screen, and other techniques, he helped rebuild French film production whole in the aftermath of World War I (in which he volunteered for military service, despite not yet being a legal French citizen).
His extraordinary, tireless enterprise made him an ideal candidate to take over pioneering and powerful, but financially teetering, Pathé Studios in 1929. He virtually rescued it from ruin, while steering it successfully into the talkie era. But despite his efforts, Pathé went bankrupt at the height of the Depression in 1935. Natan was the designated fall guy because he'd used legally questionable means in an attempt to cover losses created largely by people and institutions outside his control. There was a strong whiff of then-increasingly-fashionable anti-Semitism to his pillory: He was accused not only of fraud, but of hiding his Jewish heritage, and of being a pornographer.
The latter charge was accepted with remarkable gullibility by historians until quite recently. But as this doc suggests, painting Natan as a predatory perv making potentially career-ending stag reels makes as little sense realistically as it makes great sense propagandically. (We also see how vague the resemblance is between him and the dude or dudes in "smokers" he'd said to have performed in.) That taint helped usher him to prison in Nazi-occupied France, then to an unrecorded demise at Auschwitz. Shamefully, as late as 1948 his estate was still being sued by an invigorated Pathé. Natan is a belated reclamation of a forgotten cultural giant's abused reputation.